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The Emergency as a 'State of Exception' in Rohinton Mistry's  "A Fine Balance"

The ‘State of Exception’ theory postulated by Agamben, while investigating on the legality of the terminology, places much emphasis on the state sovereignty. As was opined by Carl Schmitt, a sovereign is one “who decides on the state of exception”. In looking at it as a political crisis, that is, if there isn’t a provision for it in the juridico-constitutional texts, it becomes a “legal form of what cannot have a legal form.” On the other hand, to consider the law employing the exception, the theory of the state in this situation binds and, at the same time, abandons the relations of living beings to law. In the Indian context, the constitutional text grants the President the power to declare an Emergency “when the consultant group perceives and warns against grave threats to the nation from internal and external sources or from financial situations of crisis.” Therefore, in 1975, the declaration of Emergency under the Indira Gandhi government was constitutional “on the basis of ‘internal disturbances’". This immediately led to the suspension of many fundamental rights of the citizens of the state, including their right to go to court in order to enforce their rights. Agamben’s sovereignty, however, seems inadequate to understand the caste oppression in India, as it doesn’t just take life but engages in maintaining its exclusionary position for the purpose of subordination.


 


The ‘bare existence’ of marginalised people is much evident in the lives of Om and Ishvar in Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’. In Agamben’s theory, it was the ‘state of exception’ that produced bare lives. However, in the case of Om and Ishvar, their caste oppression predates even the Emergency. The brutal murder of Narayana and his family at the hands of Thakur Dharamsi because they were transgressing the caste rules, stands as a glaring reality of the value of their lives in the society. As was stated by Suraj Yengde in his book, ‘Caste Matters’, “Many Dalits, young and old, reckon how many times they nearly lost the battle to survive for the mere fact of being a Dalit and exercising their virtue of being human. (Page 25)” During the time of the election, the inability to cast his own ballot disturbed Narayana, to which his father, Dukhi Mochi, suggested a meek acceptance of their position in the society. “Life without dignity is worthless”- this statement by Narayana and his subsequent action to exert his fundamental right, cost him his life. All this happened way before the Emergency, thereby depicting the frequency of such exploitations which just got amplified at the time of the Emergency. 


 


Furthermore, the threat to Ashraf’s life at the time of Partition, reveals another form of exception in the state that led to the exclusion of a religious community. Narayana and Ishvar, rising up to the occasion to help him and his family, provide a testament to the presence of solidarity in the face of many horrific massacres at the time of Partition. At a time before the declaration of the Emergency at the state level, in the familial space, Dina was subjected to harsh denunciation by her brother, Nusswan, who, after their father’s death, took upon himself the responsibility of his sister, even to the extent of using violence in order to control her actions- “The ruler became Nusswan’s instrument of choice in his quest for discipline (Page 22)”. In addition to that, Mrs. Gupta, the owner of the Au Revoir export company for which Dina worked, expressed her joy at the incarceration of several trade unionists, activists, and social workers- “Isn’t that good news? (Page 73); like others in support of the Emergency, she also believed in the government’s attempt to ‘discipline’ people by taking away their civil liberties. 


 


 


 


Maneck, on the other hand, experienced Emergency and its excesses through Avinash and his college experiences. The ‘Students for Democracy’ and ‘Students against Fascism’ groups in the campus forcing people to fall in line with the government’s policies and thereby to project their nationalism, underlines the kind of integration commanded by the state in this situation of exception. The exclusionary practices propagated by the Twenty-Point Programme, acts like MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) to crush all dissent, the sterilization campaigns, the Beautification drive leading to the demolition of slums, all point towards the excesses of the state and its idea of being a body-politic that remains incoherent with its pluricentred approaches, that is, the enjoyment of rights differ with the person’s caste, class, religion etc. Agamben talks of the transformation of a provisional measure into a technique of the government which reveals the “indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism”, this could be argued to be the case during the Emergency.


 


The plight of Om and Ishvar on account of their caste and social and economic status, even before the situation of exception, results in the radical approach adopted by Om, in his rage and violent outbursts- “I will gather a small army of Chamaars...to the landlord’s house.” Emma Tarlo, in ‘Uninviting Memories’, conducted an ethnographic study of the Emergency to record the alternative narratives of people which revealed the precarious relationship of India’s poor, both to the land and the state. She mentions about them bargaining with the bureaucrats for basic amenities-the state outsourced its functions in exchange of incentives. Om and Ishvar were asked for a Family Planning Certificate in order to get free rations. The forced sterilisation of Ishvar and castration of Om marks the precariousness of their situation.


 


To conclude, the Emergency, while being a state of exception, differs from Agamben’s theory as in this situation, the state was less than a sovereign and the people were more than bare lives, i.e., they weren’t eliminated for the purpose of political integration, as was stated by Agamben, but, instead, the focus shifted to their productivity and further subordination.


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